With the holidays just around the corner, we are entering baking season.  Most of us have memories of mothers and grandmothers baking cookies and pies and other wonderful treats on chilly fall and winter days; or big family dinners with steaming bowls and platters crowded on the table.  Despite the popularity of the Food Network and Gordon Ramsay, cooking and baking from scratch are actually rare.  I hope this trend changes for so many reasons.

Before I start, I want to say that I don’t mean to “shame” anyone who doesn’t cook for whatever reason.  It’s no one’s business why anyone does or doesn’t cook at home.  However, for anyone wanting to be self-sufficient, this is a necessary skill.

Feed yourself…well

Cooking for yourself moves you closer to being fully self-sufficient.  Even if you don’t actually grow your own food, getting a local source for ingredients works just as well.  If this isn’t an option for you due to season, location, etc., basic canned or frozen fruits and vegetables are an alternative.  If possible, select products with no salt added.

If you cook at home, you control what actually goes into your foods.  Mass-produced foods have very high amounts of salt/sodium, sugar and fat because these are the cheapest flavor enhancers.  In my opinion, these ingredients truly don’t add flavor, they disguise flavors and just add tastes that we’ve gotten used to from foods.

I’m not an organic fanatic, but I try to read the ingredients of the foods I purchase.  I have my favorite brands and try to select the products with as few ingredients as possible; canned tomatoes that are just tomatoes, pasta with only semolina and water and maybe eggs – basically, ingredients that I can pronounce.

Anyone can cook!

Yes, I just ripped off Pixar, but I believe that anyone can cook.  Not everyone will become a cook like Julia Child; but anyone can follow a recipe and make something edible and nutritious.  And not everyone will enjoy cooking or even like to cook, but again, for a self-sufficient lifestyle, you have to know how.

If you’ve never learned to cook, there are resources out there to get your started.  Many higher-end grocery stores and cooking stores offer lessons.  Check with community colleges and community centers for any classes they offer.   These can be a little pricey, but one or two classes to learn the basics as far as technique and terminology are worth the price.

Over the past few years, several companies have begun offering subscriptions that provide recipes and ingredients for meals that you will cook at home; examples are Blue Apron and Hello Fresh.  The great thing about these services is that they provide everything you need to create the meal.  Other than having to manage a subscription, this is a pretty cool idea.   I haven’t tried any of them yet, but I’m always tempted.  Even for more experienced cooks, these services provide such eclectic recipes – different cuisines, styles and techniques – they can add to any repertoire.

Of course, you always have Google.  This is what I got when I search for Beginner Cooking Tips.  Check YouTube to see videos of these techniques.

Practice, practice, practice

As with any other skill, cooking takes practice.  Start small – spaghetti, panninis, meatloaf, mashed potatoes.  Don’t try to tackle roast duck with mango chutney on your first day.

Find a cookbook for beginners; one with good illustrations.  Wonderful Amazon has tons of them.  After a quick perusal, this one looks great.  I prefer to make notes directly in my cookbooks.  If you’re good at taking notes in an e-reader, definitely use that; if not, get a printed book and make notes in each recipe you try.

Here are a few tips that have made things easier for me:
prep before cooking

  • Follow the recipe in the beginning. All published cookbooks have gone through an extensive testing process to ensure the recipes are well written, understandable and work.  Once you’re more experience and comfortable, tweak recipes to yours and your family’s preferences.
  • Read the recipes all the way through before you start – I promise this will make things so much easier.
  • Stage all of your ingredients before you start. It always makes me swear if I’m searching for an ingredient while I have something simmering on the stove.
  • Prep as much as possible. Measure, chop, mince, etc. as much as you can before you start.  Various sizes of stainless steel or glass bowls are invaluable for prep.  Plastic works in a pinch, but plastic can absorb flavors and colors.
  • Have a Plan B. Even the most experienced cooks are going to ruin a meal now and then.  It’s good to have a back-up plan even if it’s delivery pizza.
  • Take care of your equipment. You don’t need to go out and buy top of the line cookware, knives, measuring pieces, and specialty utensils; but take care of the equipment you have.  Read the manufacturers’ care recommendations.  How should it be cleaned?  Is it safe to go in the dishwasher/microwave/oven?

Cooking Equipment

As with everything, there’s high end and low end.  My personal opinion is to get the best – not necessarily the most expensive – equipment you can afford.  I have a few tips listed below.

  • Knives – dull knives are dangerous knives! Dull knives slip more often resulting in more injury.  One of the best knife values is Victorinox.  My husband loves these knives.  They are economical, professional grade knives that keep an edge.  These don’t fit my hands well, so I prefer my Wusthof.   These are more expensive but, for me, they were worth it.  Learn to use your sharpening steel and use it before every use.  Sharpen your knives professionally every 12-18 months.
  • Cookware – there are so many choices: stainless, aluminum, copper, cast iron, non-stick, etc. My favorite cookware is my stainless steel set from Calphalon.   I’m not a fan of non-stick due to the care it needs and fumes from damaged non-stick could kill my parrot.  Well-seasoned and well-cared for cookware will have minimal sticking.  I also use vintage cast iron for certain foods like chili, stew, jambalaya and fried chicken.  Cast iron is too heavy for me to use comfortably for each meal.
  • Appliances – again, get the best one you can afford. I love my KitchenAid mixer and use it every week.  I have the attachment set with the sliced, grater, sausage stuffer and food mill.  I also use my food processor  Get appliances that do more than one thing, when possible.  Research brands and don’t just go by historical reputations.
  • Utensils – these get used so much that they need to be durable. I lovelovelove my wooden and bamboo utensils.  These can be used on every cookware surface and are very durable.  I’m a big fan of OXO  These are very well-made, durable and comfortable to use.  Here are a few that every kitchen needs:

Special ingredients

…and maybe not so special ingredients.  Above, I discussed sourcing your ingredients from your garden and local sources.  Regardless of your options, there are going to be some things that you can’t get locally, especially spices.  I have my favorite companies:

  • Penzey’s Spices – Penzey’s has wonderful quality products and very reasonable prices. Their spices, extracts, herbs and blends are actually less expensive that those found in most grocery stores.  They usually have a special or two going on, as well.
  • King Arthur Flour – Okay, if you’ve read just about any of my other articles, did you really think I wouldn’t include them? KAF has flours, decorating supplies, chocolates, flavorings and wonderful mixes.
  • Amazon – again, did you think I wouldn’t include them? Amazon’s buying power allows for an amazing variety of products from which to choose.  I’ve found douban jiang from China, masa harina and corn husks for tamales, and fruit vinegars.
  • Saratoga Olive Oil – SOO has a wonderful selection of oils, salts, vinegar, etc. The infused oils are excellent; the salt blends are wonderful; and the flavored balsamic vinegar adds a wonderful extra pop to salads and vegetables.
  • Not-so-special ingredients – there are some ingredients that are the same regardless of who manufactures them.
    • Baking soda – this is sodium bicarbonate; that’s it, nothing else, so generic is going to work the exact same way as the name brand.
    • Table salt – iodized or non-iodized table salt is the same regardless of the brand. Granted kosher salt, pickling salt or other special salts are vastly different.
    • Sugar – sugar is sugar is sugar. Oddly, I’ve had better luck with generic sugar when making simple syrup; it just seems to dissolve better.

Food is love…

Yeah, yeah, all the psychologists out there just cringed.   I don’t mean to imply that food should replace actual personal interaction and affection, but feeding someone can be a very affectionate thing; especially if you prepare the food yourself.  This doesn’t have to be an extravagant, gourmet meal with exotic ingredients and “plate art”.  A simple meal of spaghetti with sauce from a jar with store bakery garlic bread can be a wonderful, warm family evening.